Reinventing Atlantic City

John Palmieri and Liza Cartmell at the weekly meeting over coffee and doughnuts.
John Palmieri and Liza Cartmell at the weekly meeting over coffee and doughnuts. (TOM GRALISH / Staff)

With gambling troubles, agencies focus on bringing in more arts, retail, and residential development.

Posted: October 01, 2012

ATLANTIC CITY - It seems a monumental task: Shrug off 34 years of marketing this place as Las Vegas with a boardwalk and rebrand it as world-class destination with a sudden emphasis on arts and culture.

And do it fast, because the gambling thing - with tens of billions of dollars in casino infrastructure - doesn't cut it anymore.

Say hello to John Palmieri and Liza Cartmell. He's the executive director of the Casino Reinvestment Development Authority (CRDA), and she's the head of the Atlantic City Alliance. Their mission is to revive Atlantic City by bringing in midweek conventions, cultural attractions, entertainment, more retail, and residential development.

They are both from Jersey - Palmieri, 61, is from Hoboken, and Cartmell, 55, from Rumson. They seem nice and smart but decidedly mortal, as they share a table at the Dunkin' Donuts at 1800 Atlantic Ave. for their weekly meeting on how to do the seemingly impossible:

Reinvent a place that, for the most part, has defied reinvention, except for the all-in on casinos, which no longer works because of competing casinos in places such as Bensalem.

They chat over morning coffee - Palmieri likes his black and Cartmell prefers vanilla chai tea - and doughnuts to talk strategy and joint marketing.

Palmieri, with a scribbled checklist in front of him last Wednesday, brought up the Noyes Museum of Art - which recently partnered with Richard Stockton College - and making it a tenant in the retail space at the Wave parking garage that the CRDA completed earlier this year.

"It would be a way to promote their introduction to Atlantic City," said Palmieri, talking with his hands and looking directly at Cartmell.

Cartmell chimed in: "We can use their connections as a bridge to the arts community and use the Noyes for one of our events."

The two clearly respect one another, as neither interrupts the other over the next hour as they discuss initiatives to make Atlantic City safer and cleaner, attract new investment, and become more tourist friendly.

Palmieri's last two jobs were as director of the Boston Redevelopment Authority and the Department of Development Services for Hartford. Cartmell spent 20 years at Aramark in Philadelphia, most recently as group president of its sports and entertainment division.

The Atlantic City Alliance was created last year as an independent nonprofit entity. It now has money that formerly went to the state's racetracks - up to $150 million over the next five years to tout the city's non-gaming draws. It launched the "Do Anything, Do Everything, Do AC" campaign in mid-April.

Palmieri and Cartmell both arrived at their jobs a year ago as part of Gov. Christie's five-year revitalization plan. The governor announced a state takeover of Atlantic City's tourism and entertainment district in July 2010, which the New Jersey Legislature has backed.

The CRDA does not sit on the Atlantic City Alliance's board, or vice versa. The two do not control each other, but the ACA does buy doughnuts for the weekly meetings.

Luring tourists back and getting new ones won't be easy. Atlantic City does not have an airport with national carriers. The area in and around the casinos is in serious decay. The housing is old, and the streets are riddled with potholes. The resort, like the rest of the Shore, can be a ghost town after Labor Day weekend.

"You name a city without blight and crime, and I'll tell you it doesn't exist," said Cartmell, who relocated the Please Touch Museum in Center City to historic Memorial Hall in Fairmont Park when she chaired its board, boosting annual visitors from 180,000 to more than 600,000.

Cartmell said the plan was to create a new arts district here alongside the glitzy casinos that have defined the place for so long, a tricky move.

"I'm very supportive of anything that generates visitation to the southern Jersey and Atlantic City area," said Tony Rodio, president of the Casino Association of New Jersey and CEO of the Tropicana Casino Resort. "Without a doubt, we definitely want to accentuate the nongambling, but we never want to separate ourselves from gambling, nor should we."

Tom Kaiden, president of the Greater Philadelphia Cultural Arts Alliance, said the arts generate $3.3 billion in annual economic impact and 44,000 total jobs. Last year alone, they produced $169 million in tax revenue for the Philadelphia region. He supports where Atlantic City is headed.

"The economics are really compelling, but the real reason that you want the inclusion of arts and culture is that it gives soul to any community," Kaiden said. "Arts and culture is what gives identity to a region."

Palmieri and Cartmell share the vision. "Arts are integral to any renewal," he said, finishing his coffee. "We have enough funding in place to make a difference.

"It's tangible."

Liza Cartmell and John Palmieri hold a strategizing session at Dunkin' Donuts at


Contact Suzette Parmley at 215-854-2855 or

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